Customer Reviews: The Ice Master
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VINE VOICEon December 18, 2000
A season in the Arctic is a great test of character. One may know a man better after six months with him beyond the Arctic circle than after a lifetime of acquaintance in cities. There is something--I know not what to call it--in those frozen spaces, that brings a man face to face with himself and with his companions; if he is a man, the man comes out; and, if he is a cur, the cur shows as quickly. -Admiral Peary
One's first impulse is to dismiss this book as just another quickie attempt to cash in on the Endurance craze, but the story of the Karluk and its crew is quite amazing in its own right and first time author Jennifer Niven does a terrific job telling it. One year before Ernest Shackleton and Endurance set out for Antarctica, Arctic explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson, working under the auspices of the Canadian government, assembled an expedition intended to prove that a continent lay beneath the Arctic ice. On June 17, 1913, the H.M.C.S. Karluk, captained by Robert Abram Bartlett, set sail from British Columbia with a complement of 25, including Stefansson, sailors, scientists, and Eskimos (including a mother and two young daughters), plus sled dogs and a cat. Within the six weeks the ship was frozen fast in the ice north of Alaska and Stefansson, taking three men and several sleds with dogs, had abandoned the rest of the Canadian Arctic Expedition, setting out for the mainland to continue his exploration.
For the next five months, the Karluk drifted westward with the ice floe, before finally being crushed and sunk on January 11, 1914, just east of Wrangel Island, which lies north of Siberia. With the crew facing the predictable difficulties caused by brutal weather, a diet of pemmican, seal, and the like, snow blindness, etc, and no reason to believe that anyone even knew they were still alive, let alone where they were, Bartlett and Kataktovik, one of the Eskimo guides, set out across the shifting ice for Siberia to get help. Meanwhile, with the departure of Bartlett, the remaining crew splintered into rival camps and added to the struggle with the elements was an atavistic struggle against each other, ending in betrayal, thievery and maybe even murder.
The story of who survives and how and of the feats that survival requires, makes for compelling reading. Stefansson is the main villain of the story, his inadequacy as a leader beginning with his purchase of the Karluk at a bargain price, even though it was clearly not suited to ice breaking, and ending with his doctoring reports of the expedition to cast aspersions on Bartlett while portraying himself in a favorable light. Bartlett on the other hand, the Ice Master of the title, emerges as a truly heroic figure. There are plenty of other heroes and villains--one of the more interesting of the former is Seaman Hugh "Clam" Williams, whose nickname is more than justified when he stoically sits through having his frostbitten toe cut off with a pair of shears--and myriad instances of courage and cowardice.
The reader can't help being torn between questioning the common sense of the men who followed the obviously incompetent Stefansson and admiration for the fortitude that many of them displayed in the face of disaster. And just as you're coming to grips with this quandary, the author provides a helpful endnote where she reveals that various survivors fought in WWI, returned to Arctic exploration and one even joined a colonization party that Stefansson later sent to Wrangel Island, with predictably tragic results. It all makes for thrilling reading, side by side with alternately troubling and uplifting glimpses of the deeds of which humans are capable when they are pushed to their limits.
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on November 15, 2000
Jennifer Niven's spellbinding account of the tragic sinking of the Karluk and her stranded crew will keep you captivated ... if not huddled in a blanket and reaching for a steaming cup of hot chocolate!
While the true story itself is nearly impossible to comprehend in our modern age of satellite communications and radar systems, Ms. Niven's riveting narration brings the bleak, bitter, isolated world of the early 1900s naval explorer to life once again in this thrilling nonfiction account of the doomed Canadian Arctic Expedition. The twenty-odd men, one woman and two children who find themselves facing the ultimate test of survival in nature's starkest of settings, as far removed from civilization as can be imagined, will truly amaze, humble and inspire you.
Ms. Niven's obvious love of her subject matter, as well as her years of painstaking research, have resulted in a most thought-provoking and highly-emotional work which captures the essence of the human spirit.
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on November 12, 2000
On June 17, 1913, the Canadian Arctic Expedition contingent headed by Vilhajalmur Stefansson on board the ship "Karluk" embarked on its mission to find an unknown continent thought to lie somewhere in the unexplored region between Alaska and the North Pole. In mid-August the "Karluk" amid increasingly worsening weather conditions became trapped in the Arctic ice floe and drifted helplessly with the winds and currents. Eventually Stefansson decided to leave the ship and with part of the crew and Eskimo guides work his way toward land. Under the command of Captain Robert Bartlett, the "Karluk" and her remaining crew continued to drift north and west until becomming hopelessly ice bound near Wangel Island north of Siberia. Here the ship was destroyed and sunk by the crush of ice leaving Bartlett and his crew stranded in the frozen wilderness. While the crew struggled for existence at their base camps, Bartlett, the Ice Master, undertook an incredible 700 mile trek through the icy wilderness of Siberia to seek rescue. Jennifer Niven has used diaries, letters, and interviews with survivors and descendants to construct the remarkable details of the crew's fight to live and Bartlett's amazing journey.
The events depicted in this book are all the more remarkable because they are true. The ability to cope with suffering, the perseverance in the face of overwhelming hardship, the manifestations of human strengths and weaknesses under pressure, and the overpowering will to live shown by Bartlett and his crew are almost beyond belief.
The story ebbs and flows with the fate of the men. Like their unwanted repetitious and monotonous existence, the narration sometimes tends to become somewhat tedous. However, those who like true stories of exploration, adventure and survival will savor this book.
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VINE VOICEon February 6, 2001
Jennifer Niven's experience as a screenwriter stands her in good stead in "The Ice Master," a gripping tale of the doomed Arctic voyage of the ship Karluk. It is nearly impossible to imagine how anyone survived the Karluk, a rickety ship unsuited to the rigors of Arctic travel, manned by an ill-equipped & inexperienced group. The ship quickly became immobilized by an ice floe, at which point the expedition's "leader" callously abandoned his men. Embedded in the floe, the ship floated aimlessly while the remaining crew and passengers struggled to survive. After enduring months in the ice-locked ship, the Karluk was destroyed by shifting ice masses and sank, forcing the group to abandon ship and make camp on top of the ice. Later, the survivors trekked across treacherous ice until they reached a small, nearly uninhabitable island. There they hung on for many more months until their rescue, suffering from starvation, disease, frostbite, despair, and infighting. Niven's vivid descriptions of the horrors & deprivations faced by these individuals leave you awestruck at the strength of the human body and the power of the human spirit. Surviving by chewing seal blubber and walrus hides - snow blindness - a mysterious illness that left most of the survivors nearly incapacitated - hunting for game on a desolate and barren Arctic island with a sharpened stick - enduring below-zero temperatures and gale-force winds & snow for weeks at a time - 24-hour darkness in the winter - amputating frostbitten tissue with a pocket knife - it is nearly unbelievable. (Also unbelievable but infinitely more cheering is that the Karluk's little black cat managed to survive the ordeal, too.) Truly a book you cannot put down, that takes you outside your world & transports you to another place and time, and leaves you marveling at the good and evil that reside inside us all.
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on September 11, 2014
I've read many, many books on polar exploration, & must say this is not one of the best. There are a number of occasions where the author makes dramatic sounding statements (like "That was the last straw!" or "As far as he was concerned this was the point of no return") without making it clear whether she somehow knew that's what the person was thinking, or whether it was just her interpretation of things. They struck me as being put in for dramatic effect. Generally, polar exploration pre-WWII or so had enough incredible stuff going on that it doesn't need extra boosts for drama.

Another authorial tendency that really annoyed me was how she described their actions when the ship was nipped in the ice; when the ice would get really active & loud & they'd panic, thinking she was going to get crushed, the group would go into a panic and rush around madly sewing their clothes & repacking their tea. Every crisis, out come the sewing needles & the tea re-packing stuff...that frigging tea apparently got repacked about a dozen times, and nobody --neither the author nor the people involved-- noticed that they were putting tea into boxes then into cans then into wood cases then into tin the very least, the author should've noticed this idiotic repacking if it really happened over & over, or not repeated it for (again) dramatic effect. Also, what did the guys do with the clothes between crises? Throw it into the corner saying, "Oh goody, the ship didn't sink so no need to worry about finishing THAT stuff" & go back to card playing? There are a number of things like this in the book that make no sense at all, & it's not clear whether the guys were just ice-crazed or the author was trying way too hard to make things suspenseful. She managed to sort of rewind & replay events that really were suspenseful & terrifying & just render them redundant & idiotic. After one crisis, Niven writes "The men retired, on edge, to their cabins, and waited for the worst to come." Which really does make it sound as if they sat around between panics & did absolutely nothing. Granted, I've read about people trapped in polar regions doing some weird & crazy things, but I'm not convinced here whether the explorers were doofuses (doofi?) or the author was just clumsy.

IMO, the best thing about the book is where the author quotes the apparent Inuit translation of the 23rd Psalm, which I find hilarious, whether true or not (p 67 in the 2000 paperback):
"The Lord is my great keeper; He does not want me. He shoots me down on the beach, & pushes me into the water."

This is so wonderful it nearly makes up for the problems with the writing....but not quite. Here, I've given it to you for free. One other good thing is there is a map at the beginning, so you can actually trace the route. It's astounding how many of these books do NOT include a map.

Some other really good polar exploration books are:
-"Where the Sea Breaks its Back" (about the Bering expedition, where Georg Steller named all those critters), or
-Ernest Shackleton's "South" (the 1914 expedition that went south, so to speak, & the incredible story of what they did to survive), or -Matthew Hensen's "A Negro Explorer at the North Pole," written by Peary's right hand man, which is not as nail-biting as some of the tales, but Hensen has a witty style that's wonderful, and it really shows some details of Arctic survival, at which he was unsurpassed) or
-"The Ghosts of Cape Sabine" (the story of the Greeley Expedition, which could be subtitled "How not to explore the North Pole.")
-"Frozen in Time" (a forensic look at some of the bodies of members of the Franklin expedition, with a fascinating theory on what may've doomed that expedition...particularly interesting in view of the fact that Canadian researchers just found one of Franklin's ships [Sept 2014])

happy exploring!
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VINE VOICEon July 7, 2002
It amazes me how ignorant and unprepared some of the early artic explorers were.
The 1913 voyage of the Karluk north fits that mold. Many of the crew were not trained and had never been in harsh winter conditions. Supplies were bought and stowed haphazardly. The very ship worried the captain as being unworthy and not suited to travel in the ice. The leader bought second hand winter gear at rummage sale prices to save money and cheap pemmican that was not tested for purity.
After the ship stuck fast in the ice north of Alaska, the leader, a shameless man named Steffansson, abandoned the crew to head over the ice toward land. He did not go for help, but left so that he could continue to pursue his own egotistical goal of finding new lands above the Arctic Circle. That left the men (and one woman and two children who were part of an Eskimo family) at the fate of Captain Bartlett.
Fortunately, the Captain was a man of courage and character. His one great flaw happened early on, but was fatal. He knows his ship was not up to the journey north. Why an experienced captain like himself agreed to proceed is a mystery, but it was fortunate for the eventual survivors that he did. (Had he chosen not to captain the ship, Steffanson would have found another captain, probably made of lesser stuff than Bartlett.)
Bartlett would provide the authority, example and leadership that allowed half the crew to survive a winter on the ice and many months camped out on the most god-forsaken island in the world, Wrangle Island.
This fine book includes descriptions of life aboard the Karluk, life aboard an ice floe after the ship was crushed, a trek across miles of arctic ice to a godforsaken island that offered little in the way of improvement save its fixed location, a final two hundred mile hike by the Captain and his Eskimo from the island, across more frozen ocean, and across northern Siberia in order to mount a relief effort.
This tale is gripping. What these people endured, particularly the party that waited months on Wrangle Island not even knowing if Captain Bartlett had even reached Siberia is fascinating. This is a tale of grit, determination, strong characters and weak. It is a fine tale of arctic survival, well worth the read.
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on March 7, 2002
Those TV "survivors" have nothing on these guys! An amazing true story, "The Ice Master" details the misadventures of the ill-fated Karluk and her hapless crew on an early 20th century scientific research expedition gone awry. Searching the Arctic for a phantom continent, the expedition leader abandons his entire company when their ship becomes icebound off the Alaskan coast. Left to fend for themselves with limited supplies, few resources and not quite sure where they are, the crew quickly reduce to their true natures. Some are gallant, some are less so and some are downright nefarious. How each man plays a part in his own fate, as well as the fate of others, is the most captivating part of the story.
It is unimaginable to me that men, women and children could be stranded on an ocean of ice with limited resources and yet still survive. This is an incredible story of human ingenuity and pure force of will defeating circumstance and nature. Niven takes care with her documentation and cites books, diaries and personal interviews in her notes. A well-written and compelling read.
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on June 10, 2015
I am going to disagree with many of the reviewers here and say that while I liked this book and would probably recommend it I would also say that it is about 100 pages longer than it needed to be. There is a lot of detail from the men's journals and it is interesting to a point but as the book moves into the last 2 months of these peoples ordeal it just begins to repeat itself over and over again. I guess that makes sense but I started skipping pages at the end up until the actual rescue as nothing new was to be learned from this story of survival. I thought it might have been interesting to know more about what happened to the expeditions leader in the aftermath. He should have been sent to prison! But maybe nothing was there because nothing of consequence happened to him. Very little is said about this subject at the end of the book.
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on December 1, 2000
This story is so immediate that you actually enter the world of the explorers. I read it in three sittings; the first two on planes, and the third in the living room under a blanket. A perfect Christmas gift for all ages. I just wanted to ship a GPS to these brave people, and had to keep reminding myself of all the technology that was unavailable to them, only 87 years ago.
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on December 1, 2001
This is a strong and well written account of the tragedy of the Karluk and it's men. We see and feel the struggle to cope and survive in the harsh environment of the Arctic. It is a good book, and makes a nice addition to Arctic adventure literature.
This is a wonderfully composed telling of the story of the Karluk. It is well written and nicely put together. The author draws from many different sources to give a full account of the story, including diaries and journals of the men, articles, books, newspaper clippings and interviews. The character development is superb - allowing us to really picture each person and their individual personalities. This is so important. The book centers around who these people were so that we can understand their actions and why tragedy befell them. Readers will be amazed at the strength and endurance of some men while being angered by the selfishness and ineptitude of others. The story is made richer by this, but the story is great on it's own. A ship-full of men surviving in terrible arctic conditions in desperate situations. Men struggling to travel to safety over torn-up ice and seemingly impassable ice walls and open leads of water between large ice floes. On top of this - the fight against starvation and disease. The beginning part of the book can seem semi-slow or boring if the reader is looking for adventure right away, but much of it sets up the story and develops characters so we get the full picture if the entire tragedy. Overall, though, it is a great book and will be enjoyed by anyone interested in Arctic adventure (sad though it may sometimes be).
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